I’ve been working on a short story that is set in the U.S. state of Mississippi in 1964 and involves the Freedom Summer actions that were part of the Civil Rights Movement. When my writer’s group critiqued an early draft, one person asked me, “Who are you writing this for?”
She went on to explain that if I was aiming the story at people my age, that is, people who remember that time, the amount of explanation I had was fine. But if I wanted a broader audience — a younger audience —I should put in more detail about what things were like in Mississippi (and the United States as a whole) in 1964.
That comment made me think not just about the story, but about the many things that I know a lot about because I lived through them, whether personally or because they were major news, things that I think of as “just life” but that are, in fact, now part of history.
I am a Boomer, part of the leading edge of that very large generation of people born in the years after World War II when so many people, at least in the U.S. and probably in many other parts of the world, were desperate for a return to some kind of normal.
Like many U.S. folks of my generation, I had the experience of going through life as part of the largest cohort anyone had ever seen. The U.S. population has more than doubled in my lifetime; the world population has tripled. The post-war baby boom set that in motion.
My kindergarten class had 60 kids and two teachers; it met half a day for one semester so that they could offer kindergarten to all the kids whose families wanted it. My first grade class had 45 kids and the teacher was just out of college. Fortunately, she was a born teacher.
All the kids were white, of course. Schools were segregated by race, despite the fact that I started school after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education that required integration of schools.
So were neighborhoods. We lived in a neighborhood of what were called GI homes, that is a subdivision of houses built for the men who served in the war and their families, financed by government money.
Everyone in that neighborhood was white, not just because this was Texas in the 1950s, but also because of federal policy that mandated segregation. Few Black soldiers got the benefit of financing through the GI bill.
We moved to the country — country that quickly became a suburb of Houston — when I started second grade. The schools were still segregated, though the country neighborhoods were not.
I went to segregated schools until I was a senior in high school. I never had a Black teacher in school or undergraduate college or law school. While I had many women teachers in public school, I had one in college and two in law school.
That brings me to bathrooms, or rather to public restrooms or toilets. Some time in the late 1950s I was at the gas station near our home with my mother and for some reason we were out of the car. Perhaps I needed the bathroom. At any rate, I was walking around the back of the station and realized there were three restrooms, labeled “men,” “ladies,” and “colored.”
I was horrified. I asked my mother, “You mean Negro ladies have to use the same bathroom as men?” She said it was true.
I’m sure I said Negro, because that was the proper word at the time and I was at least old enough to know that “colored” was the term racists used when they were pretending to be polite. I suspect my mother used that as a teaching moment, to explain the racist world in which we lived.
Bathrooms are a common feature of resistance to efforts to change racist or sexist laws.
Today, of course, restrooms are used as a way of attacking trans people. Non-binary people rarely come into those discussions, but I assume that they often face the issue as well. It’s tricky, because while sometimes a person might want to make a political point, the basic fact is that we all have to pee and most of the time people just want a clean place to take care of business without harassment.
Here’s another fact about public restrooms from not-that-long-ago history. In Texas, the state labor laws required employers to provide a couch or cot in at least one women’s restroom so that women could lie down if they needed to. I think this was a nod to menstrual cycles and pregnant employees.
Men’s restrooms lacked this facility. I asked, because I was surprised when I first saw it the summer of 1969 when I was a copy girl (a gofer job) on the Houston Chronicle. I suspect the law no longer requires it, though I think providing a place for employee naps was a good idea.
When I was in law school a few years later, one of the women’s restrooms included a large lounge area. I think it had originally been intended for women employees, but it was taken over by the women law students. There were 50 women in my law school class of 500, and maybe 80 women in the entire school (The University of Texas has a large law school.) Maybe 15 or 20 of us would be in there at a time, studying or napping or chatting.
It was a respite from the male-dominated world of law school. We needed that respite, though I’m not sure any of us knew that at the time. Being in there was akin to taking your girdle off.
(Do people today remember girdles? I know there are other kinds of devices to restrain flab these days, like Spanx, but since I threw out my girdles in 1967 after my physical education teacher told me they were bad for your muscles and gave me an excuse, I have not kept up with the current torture devices.)
One of the restrooms at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco is now gender-neutral. It’s all stalls, so you have privacy except when standing in line and washing your hands. The line moves much more quickly than the one for the women’s restroom.
Some women have told me they don’t feel comfortable in such places, that they want the respite of the women’s bathroom. It is a lovely place for a kind of solidarity, but if we could have a world with less misogyny, perhaps we wouldn’t be so desperate that we’d need bathrooms as the place to get some peace.